For Chef Melissa Miranda, quitting was never an option. Not even after the Coronavirus pandemic forced her beloved Beacon Hill restaurant, Musang, to close its doors for regular service, less than three months after its grand opening.
“To be honest, I probably had a good month of going through this feeling of grief,” said Miranda. “It took us five years to turn this pop up into a permanent place we called home, and then everything changed.”
Musang was one of more than 30 million small businesses across the country that took a financial hit due to the COVID19 crisis. The National Restaurant Association estimates the restaurant industry lost $80 billion through April and is on track to lose $240 billion by the end of the year.
“It’s too early to predict what will happen for us long term,” said Miranda. “Be we have a plan for now, and it may not be how we thought things would turn out, but we have to do what we have to do.”
Pivoting operations to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic is what many businesses had to do to stay afloat, including those owned by the AAPI community. For Miranda, it started with turning the restaurant into a community kitchen that serves up to 200 meals a day to people in need, thanks to both food and money donations from the community.
Then in early May, her team launched a makeshift takeout menu called Lutong Bahay (which means “home cooked” in Tagalog). It offers a variety of Filipino comfort dishes, from pork rib adobo (ribs braised in vinegar, soy and peppercorn) to pinakbet (roasted eggplant stew with okra, yellow squash and zucchini). The menu is available Wednesday through Sunday, 4:00 PM to 8:00 PM. On Sundays, customers can pre-order a rotating meal kit, called Sunday Baon (meaning they can prepare at home.
Aside from restaurants, other types of AAPI businesses are also hurting and unsure of what the future will bring. One of them is the MOMO Boutique located at 6th and South Jackson in the Chinatown International District. The owners, Lei Ann Shiramizu and her husband Tom Kliefgen, said that on March 16th, 2020, there was not one single person who came into their store. That was the first time it had happened since the business opened 13 years ago.
“It was very hard. We love our customers and want to keep serving them so we knew we had to do something different,” said Shiramizu, who describes her business as a lifestyle boutique blending Asian and European influences, featuring clothing, handcrafted accessories, and specialty gift items.
“Our goal is to keep Momo on people’s radar despite the store shut down as mandated by the state” said Shiramizu. “We then decided to create “Momo to Go” or what we nicknamed ‘MTG’. It’s basically a take-out gift bag filled with pre-selected products from our store. We actually did well for Mother’s Day weekend. Customers can arrange for pick-ups, get the gifts mailed or we even personally delivered some of the gifts to our customers. That definitely adds to the meaning of ‘Omiyage’ which in Japanese means ‘perfectly presented gifts’.
The owners of Momo also said they are now relying more on “internet” foot traffic, via their website and social media, than ever before to promote their brand and products. And they are not alone.
That’s also true for Max Borthwick, the co-founder of Thaifusions, a small family business featuring a line of authentic Thai curries and sauces. For the first time, Borthwick is now selling his products online, through a partnership with another Seattle based business called,“Stocked General Store”.
“In the past we avoided selling online only because of the added costs and shipping processes, extra packaging, and fees etc,” said Borthwick. Stocked was not only shipping wholesale but also shipping direct. This was an easy solution to getting access online as quickly as possible, while keeping our operations simple. Located in Ballard, it’s a very convenient option for us, and I can hand deliver products to them within 30 minutes if necessary. They’re also a great group of savvy entrepreneurs who are creative and energetic. It’s nice to be around that kind of positivity in times like this.”
For Borthwick, staying positive and creative is key in keeping his business afloat. He is still looking to the future including the launch of a few “new items”. The timing of that launch though is still unclear.
“The pandemic has changed the way we think about not only our long-term goals but our short term as well,” said Borthwick. “We have to be especially careful to not overextend ourselves, so we are focusing on what makes sense for our business in regards to costs and availability.”
That line of thinking is also what Chef Miranda of Musang is focused on as she looks forward to what her restaurant will look like in the future.
“We once had a staff of 19, then at one point, it was down to two, just me and the sous chef. So we had to do what we can to keep this place open,” said Miranda. “I care more about my staff and my customers staying healthy than to open our doors if we don’t feel ready that we can keep everyone safe.”
For now, Musang’s Lutong Buhay and Sunday Baon (meaning “supply or provision of food take on a journey”) are the new order of business. Her community kitchen will also continue to operate. For Miranda, she said closing her doors to her community, whether or not they are paying customers, is not part of her business plan, now or anytime in the near future.
“Especially with us being people of color, it’s in our blood, this need to exist, to share our culture,” she said.